Is she afraid of death? “No,” she says firmly. “Really I’m not, because I’ve been there.” In 1961, during a bout with pneumonia, she felt herself leaving her body. “It’s hard to talk about. I was in a tunnel. I saw Mike. He said, ‘It’s not your time.’ I did fight and I did come back. And I remember it all. It was quite a trip.”
Her main complaint now, she says, is that her poor health is slowing down her work against AIDS, which has been her main passion for the past two decades. “I haven’t done anything for a year,” she says. “And it really bothers me. Because that’s the thing I live for. And I feel so stupid and feeble, that I can’t do the work I was meant to do, because of my bloody body.”
In early October, Taylor was back at Cedars-Sinai for a procedure to repair seven compression fractures in her spine. Calling from home just before press time, she says she’s feeling okay, “all things considered.” Since the summer there have been reports in the London tabloids that Taylor has been fighting for her life in intensive care, or suffering from senile dementia, or watching Richard Burton movies all day and all night. Asked about the stories, Taylor lets out the kind of long, theatrical laugh that implies that she’s not entirely amused. “I don’t read that s---,” she says. “Excuse my language. It gives me a good excuse to laugh. If I couldn’t laugh at it I’d be in serious trouble.
In her living room, when Taylor becomes too uncomfortable on the sofa, she offers to finish the interview upstairs. “Come on, Sugar,” she says. As she walks up the steps, her nurse trails behind her like a courtier, lifting the hem of her caftan. It’s not a quick trip. Taylor stops several times to catch her breath before finally reaching a doorway at the end of the hall. “This is my bedroom,” says Taylor, “which is a cheery little place.”
Cheery, yes, but not exactly little. It’s a vast space packed with photographs and memorabilia, and even a few more living creatures: In a gold cage by one window there are two white doves, gifts from Michael Jackson. Jumbles of crystals, porcelain figures and mementos crowd the desks, tables and shelves. At the foot of the bed: a huge flat-screen TV, the better for Taylor to watch Law & Order, her favorite show. On the nightstand sits a bag of Pepperidge Farm Orange Milano cookies. (“Oh my God, I could eat a whole bag at one go,” she says.)
And, everywhere, pictures of Taylor: with Burton; with Todd and Liza; with her mother; and by herself at age four, on the deck of an ocean liner, facing the camera with a defiant gaze. The most recent photograph is from her Easter party last spring. Surrounded by two dozen relatives and friends, Taylor sits in the middle, the smiling great-grandmother in a flowered bonnet. In that picture, like all the others, she’s wearing great big jewels, gifts from the men in her life.